How important to my job search are references from law professors?
References are an aspect of the hiring process often overlooked by candidates. For those applying for junior positions in law firms, references are often not even consulted. This is particularly true in the larger law firm. Smaller firms, on the other hand, often do consult references before hiring associates.
Do not assume that a professor that seems to like you will necessarily provide you with a good reference. Professors have differing views on serving as references. Some view the process as a chance to boost the careers of their students. For these professors, issues of integrity are secondary to the desire to help you get what you want. These professors are your advocates.
Other professors, probably most, take a very different approach. They are concerned with their reputation in providing solid, dependable references as they are in placing you with the firm of your dreams. Honesty underlies their opinions, a fact that, unfortunately, does little to boost your chances of getting a job.
The semantics of references is an art form. Remember, what is not said in a reference is often more important than what is stated. We would all like to have a reference along the following lines: "In fifteen years of teaching, I have never had a brighter and more capable student. She will make an excellent lawyer. Do yourself a favor and hire her." There are no interpretive problems here. But now consider this reference: "She is a hard working student who has a very pleasant personality." Roughly translated, this means: "She works hard but is not very talented." These are not words designed to sell you to an employer.
An ideal reference contains most of the following ideas: You are (1) smart, (2) articulate, (3) mature, (4) friendly and/or personable, and (5) serious about being a lawyer. If some of these are missing, you may be wise to pass on using the professor as a reference.